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Witness: An Autobiographical Performance

Emily Rowan


The song ‘Witness’ is an autobiographical telling of the performer’s experiences as a witness in a court case in the summer of 2014. The presentation takes the form of a Pecha Kucha — a 20×20 presentation format showing 20 slides, each for 20 seconds. The slides forming the background to the performance are solid, objective, permanent. They present the facts. They are the authority: these are things that happened and words that were spoken. In contrast, the song presents the witness’ experience of the proceedings. Here there are no facts, only how it feels to have your private memories of a traumatic event interrogated and the truthfulness of your words brought into question.

“Traumatic memory is not narrative. Rather, it is experience that reoccurs, either as full sensory replay…or as disconnected fragments”. The repetitive loop of the music is as unrelenting as the examination and cross-examination by lawyers of a witness in the stand.

‘I put it to you…’

But unlike the drama of trauma, which replays itself over and over, capturing its victim in a bubble of ‘now’ with no option of being assigned to the past, a performance is something that must come to an end and disappear. “Performance’s only life is in the present”.

Song combines language (the crystallisation of thought) and music (a flowing expression of emotion) to create narrative from the swirl of memory within a person, externalising those memories and creating a bridge that stretches across the silence imposed by trauma to form a connection. Art is retelling—not reliving—and reduces that which is formless and overwhelming in the mind into a solid reality, communicated to and accessible by a community that listens. “Bearing witness to a trauma is, in fact, a process that includes the listener”. When that listener questions the validity of your statement, the self is brought into doubt. When the listener is receptive, the traumatised, fragmented self is remade.

I am interested in how the personal and autobiographical ideas conveyed through art and music gain broader meanings through internalisation by an audience. You will watch my performance, hear my song through your own history and experience, finding meanings I perhaps did not originally intend, but that are nevertheless inherent in the original. Every interpretation is right. My story becomes our story.

‘Witness’ was originally presented at Memory Matters, a Masters Symposium on Cultural Memory that took place at York St John University on 11 October 2014. A video of the performance by Emily Rowan can be viewed at